The first two days of Worcestershire’s match against Oxford UCCE have been without serious blemish. True, there might have been a few false strokes or the odd full toss but they were quite overshadowed by the sight of 22 cricketers, most of them still learning their craft, playing the game to a high standard on a good pitch in weather that defied early-season stereotype.
And it was very easy to see why those days in The Parks gave particular pleasure to Elliot Wilson. The visiting team was largely composed of players whom Worcestershire’s Academy coach had helped to develop. The sight of Jack Haynes making a century or Ben Parker taking wickets might well have revived memories of freezing evenings at Malvern, where the main Academy sessions take place. But it’s vital to note that Wilson is only one of a number of Worcestershire coaches charged with developing the county’s talented cricketers. When young players enter the Academy, normally at the age of 16, their games will have been observed and guided by a number of mentors for something like six years. Nor does Wilson spend his days merely watching cricket and congratulating himself on his success. He was an active coach in The Parks and his portions of his afternoons were given to the administrative tasks that ensure Worcestershire’s production of young talent is maintained.
But everyone on the ground watched Haynes’ batting on that first afternoon…
“Doing this for three days is very much a treat for me,” Wilson acknowledged. “The important thing is that I get to see our 11-, 12- and 13-year-old cricketers and what the coaches are doing with them. The coaches will educate me more often than not because they will know more about working with those age-groups. So I’ve got to resist the temptation to keep coming to places like this.”
Wilson was not alone in realising he needed to put duty before pleasure. No one present in The Parks these blissful days will easily forget them. And for many of the cricketers, such afternoons beneath a warm sun and with an appreciative crowd present help make the tough coaching sessions on bleak Sundays worthwhile. Yet it is still on those latter days that much of the coaches’ work is done and it is always interesting to learn what they are looking for when considering whether an obviously talented player should be given a place in the Academy.
“With the batsmen I’m looking for courage and a healthy relationship with risk,” said Wilson. “The first is fairly obvious given that a hard cricket ball is sometimes coming towards them very quickly but the second is also important. You can’t be forever thinking what happens if something goes wrong, you have to think about it going right. As regards technique I want to see if they can defend a bowler’s best ball and if they can judge length quickly. This last quality will enable them to make correct decisions. People like Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara saw the game differently from the rest of us.”
But young batsmen might also note that Wilson has a great respect for the unshowy skills that do not result in Kodak cover-drives but still bring centuries. One of his favourite sayings is “block, clip, leave”: a trio of shot selections that might bring a run or two every three balls while also blunting a bowler’s threat. The ability to bat like that for perhaps 200 balls is a respected gift in the professional game and Wilson’s requirements of bowlers are similarly clear.
“I want to know if they carry a threat, be that bounce, spin, pace or whatever.” he said. “Then I need to see if they can repeatedly hit the top of off stump For example, Joe Leach doesn’t carry a threat in terms of pace but he has other skills and he doesn’t miss the top of off stump very often. We also have a nice battery of bowlers who are six foot five and generate a bit of pace. There’s also courage in a different sense in that bowlers need to carry on working their backsides off even when it’s difficult to keep reproducing their skills. One of the Academy lads asked us last winter is what he needed to do and we simply told him he didn’t need to develop a better ball, he just needed to bowl his best ball more often.”
But there is also the brutal truth that not everyone who plays Under 14s cricket will get into a county’s Academy and not all academicians become professionals. It is one of the tough realities of top-level sport and something we all might consider the next time we hear a pundit declaring that English county cricket is “soft”.
“Releasing players are the conversations that hurt the most,” said Wilson. “They’re the hardest and they’re difficult to have but you have to do it because they’re not all going to get through. Even then, though, we remain concerned about those players and their development.
“The Academy’s values and standards document states two aims: ‘to develop players that will thrive for both Worcestershire and England and to make sure that every player that comes through the programme goes away with a positive image of the game of cricket and Worcestershire.’ We therefore very much hope that players who don’t make the Academy will stay in the game and will speak well of us.”
And when the long afternoons and evenings at Malvern are over, Wilson and his fellow coaches insist that all their charges remember one thing that has nothing to do with watching the ball or stride patterns or taking the bottom hand away or any of that valuable stuff. Rather it is what makes all the technical graft worthwhile.
“I’ve always asked the guys who have come through the Academy to remember that they came into the game in the first place because they enjoyed it. So don’t call it work, don’t call it a job. If you’re enjoying it, you’ll play your best cricket and that eventually matures into a deep sense of fulfilment.”